What’s so feminist about feminist foreign and development policies?

Adopting feminist foreign and development policies is becoming a trend in many Global North countries, sparking questions around the co-optation of and impact on feminist movements in the Global South.

Countries like Canada, Sweden, and France have been among the first ones to officially adopt feminist foreign and development policies. Generally articulated around the principles of gender equality, the protection and promotion of women’s and girls’ rights, women’s equitable participation in conflict prevention and mediation and political and public life, women’s economic empowerment, and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, these policies aim to ‘mainstream gender’ and strengthen the aforementioned areas in different key foreign policy domains. Depending on the country, these domains could include foreign and national security policies, development cooperation/international aid and trade and promotion policy.

These political commitments must be accompanied by increasing the allocation of resources to support organizations and programs which place gender equality as a principal or significant objective and by supporting the work of women human rights defenders and feminist activists.

Beyond frameworks and commitments, these feminist foreign and development policies hold the merit of recognizing that women’s and girls’ lives and rights are disproportionately impacted by patriarchal beliefs and structures and that–until we dismantle patriarchy itself–remedial action, accountability, and increased resources are needed as forms of reparations.

Feminist critique of feminist foreign and development policies

Even though most of these policies have been developed in close partnerships with selected feminist and women’s rights civil society organizations, they are not exempt from criticism, especially from feminist actors whose work will be directly affected by them.

At the center of this criticism, lies the fear of seeing feminisms–yes, plural–being co-opted by mainstream politics and neoliberalism, the way mainstream politics and neoliberalism tend to do with any and all progressive movements that threaten their very existence.

The definition of what constitutes feminisms is an ongoing conversation amongst feminists themselves. The plurality of feminist movements can be considered part of the strength, political and intellectual integrity, and honesty of these movements. But it can also be, and has already been deemed, as a weakness by reactionary currents. The recognition that women and girls do not constitute a political class in and of themselves and that their interests and priorities may diverge is to be coupled with an intersectional approach that addresses how systems and structures of discrimination and oppression interact and sustain each other to marginalize certain groups of women and girls.

This plurality shapes feminist debates and positionings on key issues such as, but obviously not limited to, abortion, sex work, surrogacy, and trafficking. It also has a fundamental impact on our capacity to mobilize and harness our collective political power through the sometimes-necessary creation of united fronts.

Despite this accepted and often celebrated plurality, it is to be highlighted that feminisms’ main aim is the dismantlement of patriarchy and that intersectional feminism goes one step beyond to include the destruction of all systems of oppression. Feminisms, therefore, are subversive by nature and their goal isn’t–nor should it be–to push for increased women’s participation and  representation within existing structures of power, but rather to question, undermine, and, ultimately, obliterate such structures and power dynamics.

Capitalism and its corollary, neoliberalism, are heavily reliant on women’s unpaid reproductive labor, women workers’ exploitation, racism, and other forms of discrimination. Conscious of the threat feminism represents to their continuity, capitalism and neoliberalism have co-opted part of the feminist discourse in a bid to depoliticize and neutralize it. In that context, feminist foreign and development policies are perceived by a wide range of feminist actors, including intersectional feminists, as a tool of the establishment trying to legitimize itself and ‘evolve’.

Linked to this critique is the legitimate questioning of how strongly can a State, like France and Sweden, boast a feminist foreign and development policy while exporting arms to be used in wars and conflicts that disproportionately impact women and girls? How feminist can a foreign policy be if it coexists with the increased militarization of societies (something that feminists around the world have condemned and denounced for decades on end)? Politics of representation are not enough to make a policy ‘feminist’, and labels remain void of meaning when not backed by concrete initiatives that disrupt power dynamics.

Impact on local feminist organizations

Feminist foreign and development policies have so far not been successful in decolonizing international assistance. By using certain markers and priorities as a conditionality to aid, these policies continue to orient and influence local feminist programming instead of amplifying indigenous agendas and priorities of local feminist movements. Governmental international assistance policies, as part of a self-serving State apparatus, compete over funds with local feminist organizations, fragmenting feminist movements.   Activists are turned into full-time NGO professionals busy working in a corporate world, generating reports, managing finances and analyzing social media data instead of being empowered or given the breadth and space they need to strategize to shift their material condition.

International assistance policies, even if linked to feminist foreign and development policies, are no feminist funds. Feminist funds, such as the Doria Feminist Fund, the Frida Fund, the Urgent Action Fund, and the Count Me In! Consortium, are collectively thinking about how to integrate feminist principles in their grantmaking. These principles of radical solidarity, movement-building, meaningful participation, collaboration, and care reflect the willingness to ensure that philanthropy contributes to the dismantlement of oppressive systems.

Some donor countries, without necessarily calling their foreign and development policies ‘feminist’, have heeded the criticism leveraged against them by feminist organizations and have reduced or removed altogether earmarked funding, eased up on requirements, and allowed local organizations to utilize funds to support their own priorities. This has not yet become the norm. Many major donor countries still ask local feminist organizations to tailor their programs to fit their own foreign policy priorities, thus inflicting more pressure on these organizations and activists to navigate requirements while still trying to pursue the priorities that they have identified.

These types of practices only burden women human rights defenders and activists operating in volatile and counterproductive environments with more stress. In Lebanon for instance, feminist activists are struggling with a restrictive legislative framework hindering their work, harassment and defamation campaigns, rampant corruption, socio-economic inequalities, and other multifaceted crises owing to neoliberal policies. These restrictions, issues and crises were all exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the merciless aftermath of the Beirut Port Explosion. Feminist activists were thus forced to reorient and adapt their projects - something only a few donors have understood and contended with. In these circumstances, maintaining the same level of requirements, the same timelines, and the same quality of reporting uncovers an inability and an unwillingness to accommodate the realities and experiences of the groups that these donors claim to support.

As many major donor countries reflect on and develop their feminist foreign and development policies, they need to take into consideration the demands and priorities of feminist movements. They must take into consideration how their policies and practices will primarily affect these movements and they must be willing to learn from the good practices developed by feminist funds.

Paola Salwan Daher is a global advocacy adviser and a feminist activist. Her work focuses on advocacy with the Human Rights Council and on issues of sexual and reproductive health and the rights of women and girls affected by conflict. Paola worked on human rights in the MENA region as well as on many initiatives pertaining to sexual and reproductive rights, violence against women, and refugees and migrant women’s rights in Lebanon.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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